Bible Commentator

Articles

Rabbi Moshe Reiss

moshereiss@moshereiss.org

ESAU, SON OF ISAAC AND GRANDSON OF ABRAHAM

WHO HONORED ISAAC?

INTRODUCTION

After twenty years of barrenness suddenly Rebekah becomes pregnant. It was a difficult pregnancy. She seeks after God for an explanation of what she considered her excessive suffering.  She asks in Hebrew ‘lamah zeh anochi’  ‘Why me?’ or ‘Who am I?’ or ‘perhaps ‘Why am I (Gen. 25:22)?’ (1)  This is a surprising question in view of the assumed happiness of finally conceiving after twenty years of barrenness.

Rebekah is informed by God that ‘two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body. One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger (Gen. 25:23). The younger will subdue the older twin.  This is a prediction of two forms of nations; comparable perhaps to Abraham’s two sons, Ishmael and Isaac.

It is not explicitly stated whether Rebekah shared this revelation with her husband Isaac, however from the remainder of the story it is apparent that she did not.

Rebekah had already received Abraham’s blessing (from her own family) to have descendants by the ‘thousands and tens of thousands . . . to gain possession of the gates of their enemies’ (24:60).  That is a repetition of the blessing given by God to Abraham at the end of the akeda. ‘Your descendants will gain possession of the gates of their enemies’ (22:17). Thus Rebekah called a ‘na’ar’ (a male aggressive personality) four times when she is introduced (24:16,28,55,57) gets the mission to carry the blessing not her husband Isaac.  That is particularly surprising in a Patriarchal society.

THE TWINS

The children were fraternal twins and we quickly learn that Esau appears to have his mother’s aggressive personality whereas Jacob tends to be like his father.  Isaac, the passive Patriarch (who literally did little more than follow in his father’s footsteps), prefers his aggressive outgoing son Esau, the son he was unable to be.  Rebekah prefers her passive son perhaps one she can mold him tabula rasa into ‘HER’ image of a son. Jacob stays at home, in Sarah’s tent.  He would be different than his father, blinded and traumatized from his akeda. Jacob learns from her to deal with the world by means of guile and manipulation. She over-protects her weaker child (as Sarah over protected Isaac).  

Esau, the first of the twins was born impressively mature and fully developed with a red hairy body - hence they called him Esau (from se’ar -hairy). His body was so distinguished that ‘they’ - Rebekah and Isaac- called him Esau.  The second born was called by ‘him’ - presumably Isaac - ‘Ya’acov’ - Jacob because Isaac noticed that the younger child held onto his older brother’s heel (from akev - heel), struggling to be the first born. Jacob, we are told is smooth skinned (27:11), less developed than his brother. He is the weaker of the two children and perhaps for that reason, among others, his mother protects and loves him. We are also told he was ‘Tam’, which means in Hebrew both ‘complete’ or ‘simple’ or perhaps ‘mild’. Jacob is actively attempting to supplant his brother. He is smooth skinned and perhaps slippery like one attempting to slip past his brother.

Did Rebekah believe that Esau was the cause of her difficult birth? Perhaps she believed that it was the stronger more robust and developed child who kicked in the womb causing her pain. Jacob was a more passive child, easier to handle and perhaps nurse. Both parents realized the stark contrast between the children at birth. Did Esau’s more developed body make it difficult for Rebekah to bond with him, while at the same time making it easier for passive Isaac to bond with him?  Did Esau suffer a fate similar to Ishmael, the son rejected by Sarah but not by Abraham? Did Jacob appear to his mother to bear a resemblance to Isaac, the near sacrificed son? Did Esau remind Isaac of Ishmael, the non traumatized son, the older brother exiled for incomprehensible reasons (perhaps to both Ishmael and Isaac).  Esau was rejected by his mother, while Ishmael was rejected by his step-mother. Rebekah also believed staunchly in her vision which gave her the mission to choose the son who was entitled to get the blessing.

As Esau grew into an outdoors man - a skilled hunter, not unlike his Uncle Ishmael, (and his nephew Joseph blessed by his father to be warrior – 49:24) he was the embodiment of a masculine man - one who goes out to dominate nature, to be in control. Esau was born with an aggressive personality. Jacob was born as a ‘mild man of the tents’, however by grasping on to his brother’s heel he invested much of his life striving to be like his aggressive brother.  Esau, on the other hand, with his personality was content to be as he was created.

Isaac, the passive patriarch thus gravitates naturally toward Esau and openly displays his preference for him. He finds his aggressive masculine value system attractive and comforting.  Isaac can be viewed as the embodiment of passivity, even at critical moments, when his Father Abraham was about to sacrifice him.  He recognized Esau’s masculine personality and preferred a value system different from his own. Esau is a man’s man. How can one imagine life for Esau, the outgoing aggressive personality growing up with a quasi-autistic father? Esau may have been a highly active, in all likelihood a ‘troublemaker’ as a child, but somehow restrained when with his father. How did Isaac’s demeanor affect both his children.  Was he able to inspire them, to discipline them, to command their respect?

Jacob although passive in temperament thrives on his mother’s active disposition. Did Rebekah favor Jacob for his passivity? Did Rebekah ‘adopt’ Jacob by choice and leave the ‘remainder’ for Isaac?  Conversely did Isaac ‘adopt’ Esau and leave Jacob for Rebekah? Did Esau seem like a ‘tikkun’ - to Isaac - an opportunity for a corrective experience to rewrite his own history - the passivity he exhibited at the akeda?

We have no reason to believe that Isaac did not love Jacob, nor that Rebekah did not love Esau. Each simply preferred the one personality contrasting their own. How did Esau react to his mother’s personality and her preference for Jacob? How did Jacob react to his father’s personality and his preference for Esau?  The mother was shrewd, manipulative and convinced of her mission from God.  Nothing could restrain her.

Esau, a classic parental child in a dysfunctional family protects his passive father, recognizes his father’s limitations and devotes his life to care-taking of both his physical and emotional needs. One can imagine Esau, an outdoorsman having to overcome his natural proclivities in order to tend for his father.  Jacob lives in his mother’s tent; Isaac appears to no longer live with his wife.  Esau being separated from his mother lives with his father and is more available to meet his needs. It seems plausible that Esau reminds his father of his own lost older uncle - Ishmael .

Isaac loves fresh wild meat; Esau hunts and brings it home, even cooks it for his father. His brother Jacob whose role is to cook for the family prefers vegetarian dishes - not what his father desires.  One day Esau has a particularly frustrating day hunting - it is perhaps during a very hot khamsin (hot desert wind). He comes home famished and thirsty, nearly dehydrated, to the kitchen and sees Jacob cooking a red lentil dish - hardly to Esau’s liking - but he is on the verge of expiration and note asks does not demand of his brother for food.  Jacob, the articulate man of culture makes a trade with his more boorish brother who has called the lentil soup this red stuff.  Jacob unabashedly formulates a deal.  The text is clear; Jacob demanded an oath from his brother to sell him the birthright.  ‘First give me your birthright in exchange’ (25:31).  Jacob takes advantage of his weakened brother.  Esau, oblivious to anything but his hunger and possible dehydration says ‘here I am at death’s door, what use is a birthright to me (25:32)? Esau ‘ate, drank, got up and went away’ (25:34), no doubt totally disgusted with his brother.

Jacob presumably unaware of his mother’s divine mission, is fearful of his brother but wants to best him. Where has Jacob learned this competitive behavior? This issue will come up again when Jacob obtained his father’s blessing through stealth.  Jacob had obviously been trained by his mother.

THE DECEPTION

When Isaac ‘had grown old’ (27:1) he called Esau and said to him ‘take your weapons, your quiver and bow; go out into the country and hunt me some game. Make me the kind of appetizing dish I like and bring it to me to eat and I shall bless you from my soul before I die’ (27:3-4).  

Rebekah overhears Isaac’s conversation. She convinces Jacob to deceive his father, her husband, the almost blind Patriarch and to steal the blessing from him. Jacob is fearful of engaging in deceit towards his father, but his mother allays his fears by assuming total responsibility for the theft and deception ‘On me be the curse, my son, just listen to me’ (27:13).  Perhaps Jacob pondered whether a blessing stolen remains a valid blessing.

Rebekah devised a plan to ensure Jacob’s receipt of the blessing. She dressed Jacob in Esau’s clothing and in the skin of a lamb; Isaac caught the scent and uttered  ‘come closer, my son, so I might feel you’ (27:22), which is precisely what Jacob feared (27:12). Did Isaac suspect his wife and younger son might attempt to deceive him? When the blind Isaac asked Jacob to identify himself, Jacob responded deceitfully ‘I am Esau your first born . . . [Isaac responds] are you really Esau?’ (27:19).  Jacob arrived too quickly for hunting and cooking and Isaac asked ‘how did you succeed so quickly? He said ‘YHVH made things go well for me’ (27:20). Jacob blatantly lied to his father using God’s name as a witness. His mother engineered the entire plan, slaughtered and cooked the goat. It was not God.  Isaac senses something is amiss and utters his suspicion ‘the voice is Jacob’s voice but the arms are the arms of Esau’ (27:23). Isaac did not trust his ears when he heard the voice of Jacob nor his intuition. He could never trust himself after the deception brought on him by his father.

The deception is executed, the crime pays and the theft is successful. The blessing is not addressed by name to either son, yet it is clearly meant for Esau. But the blessing intended for Esau goes to Jacob. “[T]he smell of my son is like the smell of a fertile field’ (27:27). Who smells like a ‘fertile field’, Jacob or Esau? Jacob is concerned that his father will smell him and recognize Jacob’s smell. Esau clearly meets this description.  ‘May God give you dew from heaven, and the richness of the earth, abundance of grain and wine’ (27:28). Who lives under the heaven and subdued the ‘richness of the earth’ - Jacob or Esau? ‘Let people serve you and the nations bow low before you’ (27:29).   Who is the hunter who subdued the ‘richness of the earth’. And who subdued other people but a hunter. And who is the hunter - Esau. And who ‘will people serve ... and nations bow low’ to.  The crux of the blessing is ‘be master of your brothers; let your mother’s other sons bow low before you’ (27:29).  This blessing is almost precisely what Rebekah had been told ‘One nation will have the mastery over the other, and the elder will serve the younger (25:23). ‘Curse be those that curse you and blessed be those that bless you (27:29). Given the history of Jacob and his family and Esau and his family one can ask who in fact received the curse and who received the blessing?

Esau dutifully returns with the meal he prepared at his father request. Isaac realized that ‘your brother came with guile, and has taken away your blessing’ (27:35).  ‘Have you but one blessing, my father’.  Esau wept. He instantaneously changed from the son who needed immediate gratification to one with a need for a future. But it was too late, his brother and his mother had stolen the blessing. It is hard not to sympathize with Esau and Isaac for the harm inflicted on them.  Isaac nevertheless proceeds to bless Esau.  The first part of the blessing is almost the same ‘Behold of the fatness of the earth shall you dwell and with the dew of heaven’ (27:39). Jacob received the ‘dew of heaven’ first and then the ‘fatness of the earth’, for Esau the order is reversed; Esau receives first the ‘fatness of earth’ and then ‘the dew of heaven’. Presumably Jacob is blessed first with the spirituality of heaven and then the materialism of the earth, for Esau it is the reverse.  But both receive both blessings. Even the blessing Rebekah received that ‘One nation will have mastery of the other’ is only short term. Isaac blessed Esau ‘to live the life of the sword but to serve his brother. But when you win your freedom, you will break his yoke from off your neck’ (27:40). Thus whatever the original plan envisioned in Rebekah’s vision, the blessing was divided.  Jacob prefigured the conflict between the Jewish people and Rome, as the expulsion of Ishmael prefigured the conflict between the Jewish people and Islam.

Jacob was rather easily convinced by his mother to participate in this scam. He accepts her response in advance of the deed; that she will assume responsibility for the deception.  His mild personality allows him to accept the world, at least his mother’s world. At this point in his life he lacks the assertiveness and the ego strength of his mother, his brother or his grandfather Abraham.  He does not rebel nor display any anger. Is he programmed by his mother to acquiesce? Does he also seek his father’s approbation? Every son needs his father’s love (and his mother’s).  By saying ‘I am Esau your firstborn’ and feeding his father could he believe his father loved him?

Esau plots to kill Jacob for this deception and said to himself after my father dies I will kill him. It is noteworthy that respecting his father precedes even his acting out on his rage. Even in his rightful anger he will not disturb his father peace, a remarkable sense of honor. But Rebekah understands (Esau’s comment was an interior monologue) what an aggressive personality would do; perhaps she would do the same.  She sends Jacob away, to her brother from whom he will learn guile, manipulation and deceit. She tells Jacob to stay for awhile (27:44). How long did she expect this forced separation to last? Did she really think Jacob would be back in a few days or weeks?  Can she foresee that she will never see him again? Does Jacob wonder about his mother’s claim to take responsibility for the consequences of the deceit? Does he really believe that in a few days or weeks Esau will relent in his thought of killing Jacob?

Esau hears his father telling Jacob ‘do not choose a wife from the Canaanite women’. Despite all of the pain his parents caused him, he goes to Uncle Ishmael and marries one of his daughters, a granddaughter of Abraham. What an extraordinary loving son to his father.  

RECONCILIATION AFTER MORE THAN TWENTY YEARS

Longing to return home Jacob dispatches Esau a message offering to meet, informing him of his riches and sending servants to offer a large gift, perhaps to appease for the theft. Esau decides to meet his brother and traveled a great distance.  Jacob offered his brother ‘200 she-goats, 20 he-goats, 200 ewes, 20 rams, 20 camels rich in milk and their calves, 40 cows, 10 bulls, 20 female donkeys and 10 male donkeys - a veritable fortune - a gift begging  forgiveness - an admission of guilt.

As Jacob approaches his brother he bows seven times to the ground, until he reached his brother. When ‘Esau saw Jacob he ran ‘to meet him, took him in his arms, threw himself on his neck and wept as he kissed him’ (33:4). Esau was overcome with emotions at seeing his brother Jacob.  The servants and their children bowed low, and then Leah and her children bowed low and finally Rachel and Joseph bowed low before Esau.  Esau was baffled by all the gifts and asked what they were? Jacob responded.  ‘To win my Lords favor’ replied Jacob. Esau responds to his brother ‘I have more than enough, my brother, Let what you have remain yours’ (33:8-9).

Esau responded by forgiving his brother. Jacob’s whose emotions included the expectation of violence at his brother’s hand, is amazed that his brother can forgive him. He views this forgiveness as almost god-like. Esau who had ‘more than enough’ (33:9) forgave Jacob who now had ‘everything’ (33:11).  Jacob who had previously described the numerous animals he had intended to give his brother as a ‘minkhati’ (33:10) a gift, now offers his brother his  ‘birkhati’, (33:11) a word that means both birthright and blessing.

Both Esau and Jacob lives can now begin anew. We know much about Jacob’s life but almost nothing about Esau’s from the time of the stolen blessing. Esau’s personal growth and development must have been extraordinary. What was it that enabled Esau to gracefully forgive Jacob?  What has effected this transformation from a man earlier described as a boor to becoming such a gentleman? One wishes one could understand how this man loving and caring for his ill father, hating his brother for stealing his birthright and his blessing managed to achieve that extraordinary psychological growth. It seems from the text that Esau has forgotten about Jacob and gotten on with his life; Jacob however never forgot his desire to be Esau.  Esau is the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham, whose God is image-less but Jacob can see him at Jabbok and in his brother’s face.

The brothers understand that they both have achieved their goals, both have been blessed by God and no longer need to resent each other. They are reconciled to each other. Jacob has been motivated predominately by quiet careful thought throughout this entire episode out of the guilt he felt. His actions are consistent with his life of calculation and manipulation.  Esau’s actions are consistent with his prior behavior. He is open, emotional, nonjudgmental and short sighted. He sells his birthright, cries at the lost blessing, vows to kill his brother and ends up kissing him. He acted chivalrously, generously and with forgiveness toward his brother.

CONCLUSION

Had Rebekah shared with Isaac, her vision from God, that the blessing was to go to Jacob their relationship might have been totally different. The vision did not require a single process to accomplish the end objective. Rebekah chose the process and it was a process of aggressive manipulation, of deceiving her husband and one of her sons at the expense of the other.  Abraham was still alive during the twins early childhood and he was the origin of the blessing.  It was he to whom God gave the promise.  Why did she not go to Abraham and consult with him as to how to raise the twins?  He had two children, only one of whom could get the covenental blessing, but both received a blessing.  

Isaac and Rebekah could have developed a strategy to teach their children the different roles each was to play. One (Esau) was the man of physical strength and one (Jacob) was destined to be the man of faith. Why not go to the original Man of Faith, Abraham and discuss how to develop a strategy for both children?

Two nineteenth century commentators have recognized the deception of Rebekah. They suggest that Isaac and Rebekah did indeed discuss the situation but disagreed on the appropriate strategy. Rabbi Meir Lebush Malbim (1809-1880)  (2) and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1800-1900)  (3) both suggest that Isaac wanted to separate the blessing. He felt that Jacob had the ability to lead spiritually while Esau had the ability to lead the material/warrior world and could have formed a partnership. Rebekah disagreed.  She was convinced that the blessing had to be bestowed to one son and Jacob was the sole choice.

Esau eventually forgave Jacob for his deception, yet the use of family rivalry and enmity that he learned from his mother continued with Jacob’s own children.  They would conflict and the older brothers would consider killing Joseph.  Jacob then adopted his father’s original plan and divided the blessing.  Jacob later gave the spiritual blessing to Judah and the material/warrior blessing to Joseph and various parts of the blessing to his other children.

One can argue that Rebekah who suggested Jacob go away for a ‘few days’ (Gen. 27:44) never sees Jacob again nor is she ever mentioned again. Her death is not noted perhaps because she deceived her husband and older son. Jacob is punished by marrying the wrong wife – Leah - before he marries his beloved Rachel. The midrash ‘justified’ it by his deceiving his father (4). Others have seen Jacob being in exile from his parents for twenty years being comparable for his losing his son Joseph for twenty two years.

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel said no one ever honored his father as did Esau.  (5)  Esau honored his father (Ex. 20:12) while Jacob feared his father (Lev. 19:3).  The alleged author of the The Zohar (the most important book of Jewish mysticism) Shimon bar Yochai states that redemption can only come if Esau’s tears are dried (6).  The Zohar recognizes Jacob’s deception and the Jewish tradition which continues to see Esau as evil may have been wrong. Both Rabbis may have been reading the ‘pshat’ – literal – meaning of the tale more literally than the ‘darshanim’ interpreters of the text.

(1) Avivah Gottlieb Zorenberg, lecture on November 24, 1997.

(2) Shlomo Riskin, Jerusalem Post, December 1, 2000, pg. B9.

(3) Hirsch, Genesis, pg. 441-446.

(4) Midrash Rabbah Genesis, Vol. II, 70:19).

(5)  Midrash Rabbah Genesis, Vol. II, 65:16; and Deuteronomy, 1:15.

(6) Zohar, translated by M. Simon and P.R. Levertoff, (Soncono,Press, 6London, 1976) vol. 2, pg. 66.